The One with the Dutch Dinner

Herman Koch, The Dinner (2009)

Oh boy do I need a palate cleanser after such a dinner!

When Marina Sofia recommended this Dutch book as part of her Euro27 Challenge, I knew I needed to investigate. I’m not one to shrink from a disturbing book, and one that is so cleverly built and with that much suspense and tension makes for a quick, addictive read.

The book is built around a dinner night at an upscale restaurant with four guests: Paul, the narrator, a history high school teacher in sabbatical and his wife Claire, Serge, Paul’s big brother, a famous politician expected to be soon elected as Prime Minister and his wife Babette. The book starts in dark humor and social satire, but very soon you find that there isn’t much to laugh about.

Small-talk makes way for more difficult and tense exchanges between the four people, as we gradually discover that both sets of parents have agreed to meet to discuss some horrifying act that their teenage sons have committed. The back story brings about the violent jealousy between the two brothers, the secrets and lies in each marriage, and Paul’s beliefs and thoughts.

It is not a nice and pleasant read, and the characters are not likeable, especially Paul who is clearly unreliable from the beginning. In the murky waters of moral conundrums, you cannot help but wonder where things have veered off course. Whose fault is it? What would you have done in their position? Who is innocent and who is guilty? Koch gives us precious few information to work with, so that our assumptions are little by little shaken and challenged and forced toward a new configuration.

The ending is full of twists and turns and shocking revelations, but I felt it was a bit over the top. I could not quite swallow the theory that bad behavior and violence were due to a genetic factor at all, and the whole nature vs. nurture question felt forced from that point on. I have seen on Goodreads someone analyzing the characters in this book as fascists and I felt it was quite an interesting angle (dehumanizing other people, believing in the superior value of the strong against the weak), rather than just another book about evil psychopaths.

I would not recommend it to anyone looking for a pick-me-up, but it looks like a fabulous fodder for book group discussions.

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4 thoughts on “The One with the Dutch Dinner

  1. Thanks for the mention and glad to see you picked it up. It is the kind of book which lends itself to endless discussions, isn’t it? I wouldn’t buy into the genetic component at all either, it seemed to me much more about people believing they are fundamentally right and justifying increasingly erratic behaviour to themselves to support that. We are seeing that sort of thing in the UK with Brexit now – to the point where it’s becoming ridiculous. If it can work on a societal level, it’s so much easier for it to work on the individual level.

  2. I liked it more than you, I think, though I also thought it went too far, and I wasn’t keen on the complete lack of moral justification, which made sympathising with any of the characters impossible. I actually preferred Summer House with Swimming Pool, which has a lot of similarities but I felt it was more morally nuanced, which made it work better for me. And somehow the humour in it seemed more piercingly accurate, too.

  3. Pingback: Writing ‘017: June Edition | Smithereens

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